The U.S. Department of Energy and Savannah River Remediation marked a milestone on Monday with the closing of two Cold War-era liquid nuclear waste tanks at the Savannah River Site.

The underground tanks are located in the site’s F-Area tank farm. Each tank is 85 feet in diameter, 33 feet high, has a storage capacity of about 1.3 million gallons and is large enough to fit a high school basketball court inside of it.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham was one of several guests on hand for the celebration, which included 1,200 SRR employees.

“In 2004, I was presented a plan from the Site, the Department of Energy and the communities saying there’s a way to close these tanks ahead of schedule and save $16 billion,” Graham said. “But we’re going to have to convince some folks in Washington that the environmental approach we’re taking is sound and based on common sense. … To all of those who said it couldn’t happen: We told you so.”

Eliminating the risk of legacy nuclear waste by closing tanks has become a top priority for DOE.

The “common sense” plan began with bulk waste removal and specialized mechanical cleaning. With only the minimal sludge remaining, the tanks were ready for final closure, which was completed by filling the tanks with 3.3 million gallons of specially-formulated concrete grout to seal in the remaining waste. The pouring and closure were completed three months ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline, with no injuries or accidents.

Graham authored a provision in the U.S. Senate in 2004 that permitted DOE to close 40 1-million-gallon tanks at SRS. The measure passed by one vote and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

“If you had failed, that would have been the last effort in Washington in my lifetime to bring common sense to the government,” Graham said, praising the SRR employees. “Because of your success … the opportunity to have sound environmental policies and sound budget practices is alive and well.”

The process cut not only costs but also the risk of environmental danger.

“By closing these two hazardous waste storage tanks, you’ve helped reduce the single greatest environmental risk in the state of South Carolina,” said Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. “South Carolina answered when Harry Truman called for the creation of the Savannah River Site to produce materials for our nation’s freedom, and South Carolina workers now are answering the call by effectively dealing with the legacy waste from that mission.”

Thomas D’Agostino, Under Secretary of Energy, called Monday “historic” for the site and DOE.

“The department’s mission has changed,” he said. “We’re shifting from focusing on production to focusing on taking care of our stockpile and cleaning up this environmental legacy.”

The tanks were constructed in 1958 and were in operation until the early 1980s when waste removal began. The closure of the tanks signifies the most substantial environmental risk reduction achievement for the state since 1997, when DOE closed Tanks 17 and 20, the first for SRS and the nation.

The tanks are just two of about 50 in the site’s F and H Areas. The next scheduled tank closure will be on Dec. 1, 2013.

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.